Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hail, Columbia!

In a very real sense, I was reared by ghosts. Down at the foot of the mountain where I’ve lived all my life, there is a Gold Rush town called Columbia, a collection of ramshackle brick buildings that, in my childhood, reeled toward various points of the compass and threatened to faint dead away into the street in complete structural disintegration. Immense old Lombardy poplars and elms lined the main street like flying buttresses fending off architectural failure. Amidst these derelicts lived a collection of ghosts—those already passed through the portals to the next dimension and those about to, who wafted through town on feeble legs and with the inscrutable eyes of memory.

In those days, Columbia was referred to as a ghost town, even though there was a substantial, if dwindling, population of perhaps two hundred souls. Among them were the last of the miners who heard Columbia’s golden siren song, ancient Chinese who had been bought and sold in Gold Rush labor markets, Miwuk Indians wandering dispossessed of their now mining-claimed and raped lands, a tiny merchant class who still sold dry goods or beer in musty, cavernous establishments along Main Street, and generations of pioneer families, many from Italy and Mexico, who terraced the surrounding hills for vineyards and whose native plants quickly naturalized -- Lombardy poplars, Italian cypress and wine and table grapes, in the case of the Italians; prickly pear cactus for the Mexicans. Tree of Heaven and opium poppies were another contribution, from the Chinese. 

Starting as a tent city that burned down numerous times, Columbia gradually became a town of relatively fireproof brick boxes, with tall doors, paneled at the bottom, glazed with wavering hand-rolled glass at the top and shielded by iron shutters. Lined mostly along one main street, the buildings often feature wrought- or cast-iron railings that attest to the skill of iron workers from Germany, France, Spain and Italy, who transposed the traditional designs of Old Europe to the hills of California, lending elegance and sophistication to otherwise scruffy digs. Lerner and Loewe’s musical Paint Your Wagon was inspired by the true story of Columbia, sent to them by their friend and our judge, Basil Leever, who based it on actual events. So rich were the deposits of gold around Columbia, Gem of the Southern Mines, that miners did not hesitate to tunnel under the town, causing some buildings to list or to collapse outright.

In my childhood, the town had come to stand on a pedestal of land ringed by a moat of hydraulic diggings from which arose monolithic stones—native marble, sculpted by underground rivers into fantastic forms, and then exposed by the high pressure hoses of the miners. I wrote my first poem at the age of ten, about these fantastic revelations from the deep:

            The rocks around Columbia as memorials ever last
            To the miners who uncovered them in long years past.
            Like ghosts they waver, on dark and starless nights,
            Stark, still and ghostly, a weird and grayish white.
            There they stand in shrouds so tall,
            A memorial to the miners who heard Columbia’s call.

 The Rocks, we kids called them. Every child in Columbia knew the endless acres of The Rocks. In an apparent labyrinth of countless dead ends, we all knew the sinuous paths among the standing stones. Boys made forts in deep voids at their base, that once held pockets of gold. Girls had their meeting places, where gossip was exchanged and incipient crushes discussed, atop enormous platforms of marble. The Rocks were our playground, bulwark against adult intrusion and endless realm of the imagination. There were piles of fist-sized stones from the bottom of some ancient river, of types and colors unknown in our area; collapsing wooden flumes; caves; and, most intriguing of all, the entrance to an underground river which, during Columbia’s heyday, was a tourist attraction navigated in wooden boats.

At about age ten or eleven, I discovered an abyss out in The Rocks that had been used for a dump. From it, at peril to life and limb, I began hauling up treasures: rusted cans that I filled with hand-forged square nails, false-bottomed bottles, opium pipes and shards of blue and white Chinese porcelain. Most treasured of all were the mismatched door and top of two woodstoves, cast in iron with delicate floral and shell patterns.

I still keep these treasures. As potent as an alchemist’s prima materia, they summon up a lost world where old miners would periodically emerge from the hills, bearded to the waist. They used a variety of conveyances from boot leather to burro to ancient and groaning beetle-backed automobiles with back seats full of shovels, gold pans, pick axes, crates of dynamite, bed rolls and mongrel dogs. They would sit on the wooden bench outside the Stage Driver’s Retreat, one of two bars in town, and regale any passerby with stories of the current lode they were following, dragging quartz stones veined in gold wires, or tiny vials of gold dust and nuggets, from their pockets with gnarled and grimed fingers.

Yesterday, when I stepped from my own current conveyance onto Columbia’s street, I was overcome with a fragrance that immediately wafted me into another, earlier time. The top notes of Columbia’s perfume are dry wild grass, anise, cypress and ripening figs and wild pears, with heart notes of mildew, cat pee and cold iron and bricks, and, in all seasons, a sustained base note of damp, decomposing poplar leaves. Yesterday, the poplars soared like giant candle flames against a deep cerulean sky. Every gust of wind brought showers of golden leaves, like a miner’s dream of endless wealth. I stepped from 21st century reality immediately into the world of my childhood, carried on the sensuous stream of Columbia’s dreaming beauty.

My nerves were tight as a fiddler's strings from the drama of the weekend, as my book, Commune of Women, suddenly catapulted onto Kindle’s top 100 best seller list. I badly wanted and needed grounding and to get it, I turned toward the known mystery, the ever-shifting and alluring alleyways of The Rocks. In my next post I’ll share with you the revelations that arose there – not the least of which was the realization that I was reared by ghosts.

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